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We must listen well to those outside the church in order to address them in our preaching.

In his latest book, Think Again, Adam Grant defines preaching: “We go into preacher mode when our sacred beliefs are in jeopardy: we deliver sermons to protect and promote our ideals.” 

While Grant, an organizational psychologist, doesn’t necessarily capture the biblical use of the word “preach,” he does give us a window into how some view and receive those 15 to 40 minutes in most churches on a Sunday morning: in the face of opposition or alternative options, Christians often default to defense to protect our ideals.  

There are two words in the Greek New Testament that get translated to English as “preaching” but have more nuanced meanings. The first is better translated as “to herald,” and the second as “to evangelize.” Neither has anything to do with a defensive posture; rather, they indicate preachers are to be couriers. A herald is a messenger sent from one party with an important message to proclaim to another. An evangelist is, literally, a bringer of good news.  

This difference between Grant’s definition of preaching and the New Testament’s definitions raises an interesting question: Why is our preaching viewed by some as the promotion and protection of ideals and values we hold sacred and not as the delivery of good news to be discussed? Is it possible that something about the way we preach contributes to that? 

Recently we completed a study in which we interviewed young people (ages 18-29) who were disconnected from the church about their experience of Christian worship services. All of them had significant church experience, almost all went regularly as children, and none of them stopped attending because of sermons that delivered good news to be discussed.  

Some experienced preaching that demanded belief in the Bible without offering evidence for those beliefs.  

Some experienced preaching that pitted science against faith.  

Some experienced preaching that rebuked one particular group of people for their sins over others.  

Some experienced preaching that ignored or avoided the social issues of today, such as climate change, mental health, systemic injustices, poverty, and the plight of marginalized groups. 

We could even summarize some of the preaching they experienced as promoting and protecting ideals and values that some hold sacred. One participant said they felt they were asked to “leave (their) brain at the door.”  

 Some young people did report positive experiences with preaching. Some were intrigued and enjoyed learning. Some remembered worship services and church communities quite fondly. Some hoped to attend again. But as leaders who love the church, we don’t want to attend only to the positive comments and dismiss the negative. Those negative experiences make us wonder how we can serve as messengers of good news for a new generation.   

What if, as one participant suggested, preaching was an opportunity to promote conversation rather than protect ideals?  

One of the ways I (Corey) try to do this is by inviting discussion and contemplation rather than speaking as though everyone in the room recognizes the authority of the message. Rather than declaring, “Thus saith the Lord,” I aim for, “This is worth considering.”

In today’s culture, we need to preach in a way that promotes conversation rather than protects our ideals. How might we do that? Here are a few things I am changing in my preaching as a result of what we’ve learned through this study:

Listen. Communicating in a way that promotes conversation requires the skills of conversation, particularly the ability to listen. We must listen well to those outside the church in order to address them in our preaching. Understanding a person’s thoughts and worldview is an arduous task. Take time to listen to people and learn the nuances of the way they think. Seek to understand them. One of the most interesting things that came out of this study was how wrong our assumptions were about how young people thought about spirituality and faith. 

Additionally, read books, listen to podcasts, and watch movies and shows produced by people disconnected from the church. Pay attention to how they see the world. To address these points of view in your preaching, you must first hear the points of view. 

Have informed conversations. Preaching is by nature a one-way conversation. In order to shift your tone and make each sermon feel more conversational, include other perspectives gleaned by listening to others. Addressing perspectives in the best light possible helps people feel heard, seen, and understood. Demolishing a straw man accomplishes nothing. 

One of the greatest discoveries for me as I listened to the views of others was how open people were to the idea of God and spirituality. Their points of view were much more nuanced than I had previously thought. None of the participants told us they were staunch atheists, but many held some level of agnosticism. Preaching should work with these new assumptions in mind. Assuming openness, not opposition, changes a preacher’s tone. 

Use relational logic. Finally, I am retiring the phrase “the Bible says” as a justification for belief. One of the frustrations expressed by participants in this study is when people say that if the Bible says it, that settles it. I’m not changing my trust in the words of Scripture, its infallibility, or its inspiration. But I’m changing the way I communicate that trust.  

Instead of saying, “The Bible says our hope is in the resurrection of Jesus,” I’m saying, “John, one of Jesus’ closest apostles, believed that there would be life after death, not out of some blind hope, but because he saw Jesus risen from the dead.” I am locating the evidence for my belief in the witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus. We believe that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, and peace, not because “the Bible says so,” but because the incarnate God, Jesus, was the best representation of that fruit, and if his Spirit lives in us, then we too will bear that kind of fruit. If we locate our belief in the Bible without any nuance or explanation, it confuses that belief with other ideas found in the Bible that we might not hold, such as stoning someone for not obeying the Sabbath (Num. 15:35).

The foundation of our faith is not a book. It’s a historical event documented by eyewitnesses whose accounts were eventually included in a book. The tools we use to assess many taken-for-granted historical events, such as Alexander the Great's world conquest, when applied to the gospels make the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus one of the most well-documented historical events known to humanity. So I’ve opted to start dropping the phrase “the Bible says” from my preaching as a justification of our spiritual truths and started locating them in the eyewitnesses of the resurrection.

If the goal of preaching is to herald good news for people, then we must communicate that good news in a way that makes sense for those people. 

The authors thank the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship for a grant used to support this work.

Discussion Questions

  1. What was one of the best sermons you have ever heard? Can you identify why you liked it so much?
  2. Would you agree that a lot of sermons aim to “protect and promote our ideals”? Why or why not?
  3. How did you feel and what did you think when you read about the disconnected-from-church young people’s responses to sermons? 
  4. How would you incorporate at least one of three steps identified—listening, having informed conversations, using relational logic—in your relationships and conversations with others, especially with those who are disconnected from church?

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